Thomas Cawthron 1833 – 1915
Founder of The Cawthron Institute
“Its establishment was not only of great value to agriculture but it also stimulated scientific research throughout the whole of New Zealand.”
Sir Theodore Rigg, former Cawthron director, Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966
Many fortunes were made and lost in New Zealand’s 19th Century gold rushes. Canny merchant Thomas Cawthron amassed his pile of wealth from offices in the beached hulk of a ship at Port Nelson, but most of his money came through the hunt for coal and copper and from sending supplies to gold miners in Golden Bay and Hokitika.
Over a hundred years later the name of this retiring but generous man lives on in one of New Zealand’s leading scientific research organisations, Nelson’s Cawthron.
Thomas Cawthron was born at Newington, Surrey, on 25 May 1833 and was 15 years old when his parents and family set out for Nelson in the sailing ship Mary. He worked in Wellington, then followed the gold miners to Australia, spending several years as a contractor for miscellaneous goods on the goldfields of Bendigo and Ballarat. Returning to Nelson in the mid 1850s when his father became ill, he won a contract to dig the test drives for copper deposits on the Dun Mountain, going on to contract for the supply of food and stores for the copper-mining project and for the Jenkins Hill coal mine.
Described as tall and slow of speech, he was also strong and fit enough to cope with delivering supplies to miners in the rough Mineral Belt country, around 20km by a mountainous track from the Nelson township. He was a shrewd investor in property, shares, local bodies, war loans and mortgages and seemed to have a ‘golden touch’ in all his business transactions. By the time of his retirement in the late 1880s he had amassed a considerable fortune.
After his retirement he lived quietly and frugally with his sister Mrs Wright. He seemed to have few interests other than the investment and care of his money. However, behind the scenes he helped out in many individual cases of hardship and distress and contributed to causes such as relief funds, church organisations and educational and recreational schemes. In his later years, he made larger and more public gifts, including the Cathedral steps, the Rocks Road chains, Cawthron Park (in the hills to the east of the city), contributions towards a public hospital and nurses' home, and smaller donations to the Nelson Institute (which used to run the Nelson library), the Nelson School of Music and its pipe organ.
Thomas Cawthron died on 8 October 1915. He bequeathed £231,000, practically the whole of his estate, for the development of an Industrial and Technical School, Institute and Museum to be called the Cawthron Institute. This was officially opened in 1921 with Thomas Easterfield, emeritus professor of chemistry at Victoria University College, as its first director. The early work of the Cawthron Institute included major research in the areas of soils, agriculture and biochemistry, and it played an important role in stimulating government scientific research. In the Cawthron Institute, the legacy lives on in a reputation for enterprise and excellence in scientific consultancy and research.
Sources: Margareta Gee, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, 2007; Theodore Rigg, Encyclopaedia of New Zealand. 1966; Karen Stade, www.theprow.org.nz 2009.